Oct 10 2012

NDEs and Effing the Ineffable

Published by at 6:05 pm under Death,NDE,Survival

There’s a story making the rounds, published in the latest issue of Newsweek, about Harvard Neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander, and his Near Death Experience.


Dr. Alexander provides a very powerful narrative of his experience, made the all the more interesting by the fact that it occurred without any higher brain functions.

In the fall of 2008, however, after seven days in a coma during which the human part of my brain, the neocortex, was inactivated, I experienced something so profound that it gave me a scientific reason to believe in consciousness after death.

I know how pronouncements like mine sound to skeptics, so I will tell my story with the logic and language of the scientist I am.

Very early one morning four years ago, I awoke with an extremely intense headache. Within hours, my entire cortex—the part of the brain that controls thought and emotion and that in essence makes us human—had shut down. Doctors at Lynchburg General Hospital in Virginia, a hospital where I myself worked as a neurosurgeon, determined that I had somehow contracted a very rare bacterial meningitis that mostly attacks newborns. E. coli bacteria had penetrated my cerebrospinal fluid and were eating my brain.

When I entered the emergency room that morning, my chances of survival in anything beyond a vegetative state were already low. They soon sank to near nonexistent. For seven days I lay in a deep coma, my body unresponsive, my higher-order brain functions totally offline…

There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well. While the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them, my brain-free consciousness journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe: a dimension I’d never dreamed existed and which the old, pre-coma me would have been more than happy to explain was a simple impossibility…

All the chief arguments against near-death experiences suggest that these experiences are the results of minimal, transient, or partial malfunctioning of the cortex. My near-death experience, however, took place not while my cortex was malfunctioning, but while it was simply off. This is clear from the severity and duration of my meningitis, and from the global cortical involvement documented by CT scans and neurological examinations. According to current medical understanding of the brain and mind, there is absolutely no way that I could have experienced even a dim and limited consciousness during my time in the coma, much less the hyper-vivid and completely coherent odyssey I underwent.

Alexander then goes on to speak of finding himself in a realm of clouds, interacting synaesthetically with his environment, and other beings.

A couple of bits struck me:

Although I still had little language function, at least as we think of it on earth, I began wordlessly putting questions to this wind, and to the divine being that I sensed at work behind or within it.

Where is this place?

Who am I?

Why am I here?

Each time I silently put one of these questions out, the answer came instantly in an explosion of light, color, love, and beauty that blew through me like a crashing wave. What was important about these blasts was that they didn’t simply silence my questions by overwhelming them. They answered them, but in a way that bypassed language. Thoughts entered me directly. But it wasn’t thought like we experience on earth. It wasn’t vague, immaterial, or abstract. These thoughts were solid and immediate—hotter than fire and wetter than water—and as I received them I was able to instantly and effortlessly understand concepts that would have taken me years to fully grasp in my earthly life.

I continued moving forward and found myself entering an immense void, completely dark, infinite in size, yet also infinitely comforting. Pitch-black as it was, it was also brimming over with light: a light that seemed to come from a brilliant orb that I now sensed near me. The orb was a kind of “interpreter” between me and this vast presence surrounding me. It was as if I were being born into a larger world, and the universe itself was like a giant cosmic womb, and the orb (which I sensed was somehow connected with, or even identical to, the woman on the butterfly wing) was guiding me through it.

I have had two experiences that echo parts of Alexander’s narrative.

First, in conducting an experiment many years ago with a friend on mutual OBEs (Out of Body Experiences), I experienced a bit of the “explosion of light, color, love, and beauty” that Alexander describes. I absolutely suck at inducing OBEs (I’m rather stuck in this body, it seems), but occasionally I’ll give things a try. This particular time, I found myself as a being of orange light, conscious, and aware. My friend was also there (wherever “there” was), and it felt like we had returned to our original forms. In being this sentient light, we regained memory of who/what we really were. We were able to communicate without words, altering our colors, intersecting and weaving around each other.  We then confirmed with each other what our experiences were, afterwards.

I freely admit, this is non-verifiable, and probably even impossible to duplicate. But, I bring it up as more anecdotal evidence that something might be going on here.

Second, in relation to Alexander’s orb…  comes this experience from my dream journal (May 28, 2006):

At some point in the night, I went lucid.

I could feel my entire body vibrating…almost shaking. I was aware that I was heading into a giant field of white light, emanating from a silver/black/white sphere that was exerting an immense gravitational pull.

I found myself thinking the words “Not yet…Not yet…Not yet…” as I tried to pull back from the light.

It wasn’t working.

My body continued to shake even more.

With great effort, I managed to force out the words “I…AM….HERE.” (meaning “this” physical space). My eyes opened, even as I felt myself still being pulled from what I can best describe as “behind” me. My eyes closed again, and I was back into the white. I exerted/asserted myself once more, and opened my eyes and sat up, still feeling a continuous tugging.

I sat with it for a few moments, and then lay back down. The shaking continued once more.

Back into the white, though it’s pull on me was less. I was still in its gravitational field, but no longer hurtling into it. I stayed with it for a while. Communicating? Observing? I’m not sure. Eventually, we parted.

I woke up later this morning.

The thing is, none of this was particularly frightening while it was going on. Overwhelming, yes. At no time did I feel like I was in danger, but I wasn’t passively blissing over the whole thing, either. Keeping myself “here” was a monumental effort.


Dream? NDE? Seizure?

I have no idea.

When I woke up this morning, I (strangely) didn’t think much of it. If anything, the white field was strangely familiar. I just knew that if I’d gone all the way into it, I may not have come back. And, as I said, this is still the time of “not yet.”

Words are difficult to find to describe this.  I should clarify, that actually, the whiteness was the color of light during an eclipse. It had an inner darkness to it.

I have tried to unpack this experience in terms of alchemical symbolism (the Black Sun), but have also found possible explanations in Henri Corbin’s The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism, both of which I’ll write about another time.

One thing that I find sadly inevitable is the bashing that Dr. Alexander is getting in some of the comments on the story – disappointment that he is seeking religious explanations for his experience. When one has an Experience of some sort, one that completely upsets the apple cart of your worldview…you seek what explanations you can find. While Alexander found confirmation of his experience within Christianity, and I looked for explanations in alchemy and Sufism, it should be noted that sometimes the only place one can turn to for matters of the spirit, is spirituality. For me, it isn’t a matter of saying “See! This bit of scripture confirms that what I said was real!”  It’s more about finding something that echoes the Experience, or speaks to it, or describes it. Knowing that someone else has gone through it and documented it as well. Sometimes one has to see the picture on the box of the puzzle, to know what the pieces are going to build.

This post is getting long, but I will close with one other bit.  Back in 2007, I presented a paper at a conference for the Academy of Spirituality and Paranormal Studies. One of the other presenters was a man named Dr. Steven Hoyer, who had worked with a woman named May Eulitt, who had been struck by lightning, and had a very powerful NDE , wherein she eventually made it through the other side of the tunnel, and found herself in another world entirely. She lived an entire lifetime there, learning an entirely new language, getting married, raising kids, growing old, and eventually dying.  At her moment of death in the other world, she woke up back here, moments after the lightning strike.

Hoyer documented the case in his book Fireweaver: The Story of a Life, a Near-Death, and Beyond. It’s a fascinating story. If you want to read more about Dr. Alexander’s experience, his book, Proof of Heaven: A Neuro-Surgeon’s Near-Death Experience and Journey into the Afterlife will be available on October 23.

Regardless of whether you believe that his experience proves the existence of God and Heaven, or is indicative of something else, it still sounds like an amazing journey.  I’ll post my thoughts on his book once I’ve read it.



No responses yet

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply

Prove You Possess Consciousness * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.